“I may be getting this wrong but the reason there’s 18 holes in golf is that there’s 18 shots in a bottle of whiskey.”
Troy Robertson is on the phone from his brand new 112-acre "Whiskey Ranch" distillery in Forth Worth, Texas—a massive compound for the bottling and tasting of Firestone and Robertson Whiskey. This will be the brand's second distillery in the city.
The property also houses a full golf course.
The Ranch won’t be producing bottles until mid-December, but folks are welcome to poke around the new property as the partners get ready to go. For the next few Thursdays and Fridays, people can take a peek at the golf course, massive visitor’s center, and all the amenities. The owners had to come a very long way before the new digs were even a sliver of an idea. There were sleepless nights of bottling by hand, creating wooden bottle toppers, and the convincing of wives that this venture was a good idea.
Robertson chatted about the brand’s come-up while looking out his office window, wishing he had time for at least a little pitch and putt.
How was Firestone & Robertson born?
I was in the oil business and the company I was working for had just been sold. I had toyed with the idea of starting a new oil and gas company but always had this idea bout a distillery. I knew Leonard through our wives and kids being around the same age, so we were friends socially. It turns out he was having the same distillery idea at the same time.
So, I made the choice to focus full time on entering the whiskey business and went to speak with a distiller in Central Texas. Within ten minutes of that conversation starting, he told me there was another guy from Fort Worth coming in to talk about opening his own distillery. I got him to tell me who it was and couldn’t believe it. On my way home I called Leonard, and it’s safe to say he was surprised. From there we got together and were kind of having a competitive investigation. By the end of our conversation we decided to partner up. We had the same vision and idea about what we wanted to do.
That’s crazy. You aligned on everything you wanted to do in a new business venture?
It was amazing and serendipitous. Both of us had developed basically half business plans. He had just sold his media company, so we decided to give this our all. We worked everyday for a year meshing our business plans. We knew that if we're going to just stick with making whiskey it’d take a lot of capital. Two guys looking for money who had never been in the business before.
That had to be quite the sales pitch.
Two guys not from the industry that are wanting to make the whiskey, with no product to taste. Needless to say it was tough at first. We saw our fair share of slammed doors. Over the course of 12 months we did about 100 meetings with a 10 percent hit ratio. Thankfully, we had some people believe in what we were doing and we closed our money. However, it takes so long to get your distilling license that we couldn’t wait until our money was raised. We funded the operation out of pocket at the beginning. It got real. Very real.
The first discussion with our wives didn’t go very well [laughs].
They weren’t into you guys paying for a new whiskey distillery?
My wife is a banker so I knew she’d be my toughest critic. At first she was like “you gotta be kidding me.” After I walked her through our business plan she thought I really had something there.
Where did that confidence come from to go into those meetings, to tell your significant others about this dream, when you were new to the world and didn’t even have a product to try?
We formed in 2010 and then for the next two years we were spending time in Kentucky making friends and trying to understand the tribal knowledge of the industry. We knew that if we were going to be successful we needed to get educated. We met great people in Kentucky who let us get in the facilities and ask questions. We became experts, in theory.
We also knew we were going after a specific consumer. Being in Texas, we surveyed the market and by in large the biggest brand was Crown Royal. A Canadian blend. So we knew there was a huge appetite for blended whiskey and we looked at the American blends and they were not that great. We saw a consumer base that likes this whiskey and we knew we could make something better.
We literally crossed our fingers when the first shipment went out. Thankfully we made the right decision.
So then you’ve opened the first distillery.
Yep, we were the first distillery in North Texas. With that of course came a lot of interest and a lot of hurdles. Fort Worth had never seen a distillery. There were city codes and building codes. We were working with machines that are dealing with flammable liquids. That makes the fire department’s ears perk up. It’s just me, Leonard, we hired a full time distiller, and we had a part-time person to help with tax reporting which you do every two weeks.
Wait, you have to report your taxes every two weeks?
Yep. We do tax returns every two weeks. Whether you sell a drop or not you have to turn in the paper work.
You guys are wading through all the city codes, etc… what else is happening at this time?
We’re bottling by hand, distilling, blending. We don’t do anything easy. We don’t mean to do it hard. What we like just ends up being really difficult.
Case in point, our tops for the bottles, we make those by hand. When we were designing the packaging we wanted to showcase elements of where we are from. Cowboy boots are a big part of our culture. I’m a hobbyist wood worker and wondered if we could make a top out of wood and some boot leather. I made some prototypes and sacrificed a pair of my own boots. Now each of our bottles features that type of top.
Did it take a bit for people to catch on or were you guys a hit quickly?
We released our TX blended whiskey in 2012 and didn’t know what to expect. The distributor told us we’d probably sell a couple hundred cases in the first few months. After the fist two months we had sold about 1,500 cases. The four of us were pulling all nighters to meet demand but it was so thrilling. Even the distributors were in awe. It hasn’t stopped growing.
So when did ideas for the Whiskey Ranch start blossoming?
About six months after the blend was for sale we knew we’d need a bigger facility. We looked at Kentucky distilleries and saw they were all on large pieces of property. So we started looking at ranches around Fort Worth but quickly realized it’d be crazy expensive to pull in all the utilities we’d need, like water, gas, basic things like that. We were a bit disheartened and bummed out but still scouring real estate listings. That’s when we came across the Glen Garden Country Club for sale.
It had been for sale for two years and they were having trouble finding a buyer. We were intrigued by the size and it’s proximity to Fort Worth’s downtown. We have been hyperfocused on tours and the education process on what it is we are making. Plus the land has four deep water wells. Water is so important for what we’re doing and they’re in aquifers that are limestone. That’s imperative to good brewing water.
Plus, it had a golf course.
Oh yeah. We started learning more about the history of the property. We are both big golfers and we found out that Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson grew up caddying and learning to play there. It was euphoria for us.
Are whiskey and golf two things that usually go together?
Absolutely! Our wives, when we told them about this property they were just like “What? You guys need another distraction? Now you can just leave your whiskey office and go play golf?”
How does Texas and your guys’s love of the state work itself into the product you’re producing?
Texas is kind of it’s own brand. It’s also the second largest consuming state of whiskey in the country. Little is made here though. There’s no reason we can’t be a world renowned distillery from Texas that makes actual great whiskey. We wanted to put the boot leather in our tops, and real canvass around the necks of bottles to represent chuckwagons and stagecoaches of the old west. The stacked T and X on the bottles is meant to look like a cattle brand. This is all purposeful.
We just knew we had to do these things without it feeling cliche. We didn’t want to come off as airport Texan.
Lastly, have you found yourself sneaking out to play the back 9?
As much as I’d love to say yes, the last four years have just been going at a breakneck speed. We’ve been buried. However, as I’m looking out my window the course does look pretty inviting.